World Rugby have confirmed to us that there will be no relegation from this year’s World Series
The redesign of the World Series – announced in December and starting from next season - is more radical than we – and most correspondents - realised.
Since the series began in 2012 there have been two constants:
* Every season (apart from 2019-20, which ended early due to COVID) has ended with a core team being relegated.
* Every round of the series included at least one “guest” team
But not this year.
There have been suggestions for some time that there might not be relegation at the end of this season, but we have heard that before, and there was nothing in print from World Rugby that suggested that the changes would be so far reaching.
However, during last weekend’s round we were told that Spain and Brazil had been sent documents by World Rugby confirming that there would be no relegation. We therefore asked World Rugby for comment and today received the following:
“The winning women’s team from the World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series in April will join the Series next season as the 12th team, alongside the current 1 through 11 ranked teams on the Series this season since there isn’t a relegation this season.
“The plan moving forward is to have the bottom four teams from the World Series play the top 4 from the Sevens Challenger Series at the 2024 grand finale for the 4 places on the following Series. The Challenger Series will have 3 events each year not including the grand finale, and I’m told the plan is to have more events in the future.”
* No relegation this year
* The winner of next month’s Challenger Series in Stellenbosch (20-22 and 28-30 April) will become the 12th team
* No “guest teams” will take part in any round of the Series after this season
* A new minimum three-round “Challenger Series” will run in parallel with the seven-round World Series.
* The seventh round will be a “Grand Final”.
* The top eight teams in the World Series after Round 6 will complete their Series at the Grand Final
* At the same time, the bottom four teams in the Series after Round 6 will compete with the top four from the Challenger for four places in the following year’s World Series.
The loss of the “guest teams” is not a great loss to the tournament. Since the tournament expanded to 11 Core Teams in 2014/15, only Brazil (Atlanta 2015, Sao Paulo, 2015 & 2016), South Africa (Dubai, 2016), China (Kitakyushu, 2018) and Poland (Malaga, 2022) have reached a quarter-final. In most tournaments the guest team has finished 12th. Twelve core teams will make the series more competitive.
However, the loss of guest teams will make it likely that no World Series teams will be relegated in future years.
Instances where full-strength World Series teams have lost competitive games to teams from outside the series are very rare. Moreover however good the Challenger Series proves to be, it will not approach the quality of World Series, even before the fact that they will play only three rounds before the Grand Final rather than the six teams in the World Series will play. The four World Series teams will have a far greatter preparation for the Qualifier and be more likely to retain their places each year than any Challenger team will win promotion. And without the opportunities offered to guest teams the only time Challenger teams will now meet full-strength World Series teams will be in the Grand Final, so the gap between the two divisions will likely grow.
But, for all those objections, it is hard to see how World Rugby could have come up with anything better than this. There is now a path for every nation to aspire to reach the World Series, starting with the regional championships, moving into the Challenger Series, then the Qualifier, and finally the World Series itself.
Based on the selection of teams taking part in next month’s Challenger series it looks likely that the 2023/24 Challenge will have three teams from Asia and Europe; two teams from Africa and South America; and one team each from North America and Oceania. This is because for next month's Challenger these teams are:
Africa (2): South Africa, Madagascar
Asia (3): China, Hong Kong, Thailand
Europe (3): Poland, Belgium, Czechia
North America (1): Mexico
South America (2): Colombia, Paraguay
Oceania (1): Papua New Guinea
Obviously one will move up to the World Series, and there is no certainty that the vacancy that this creates will be filled by another team from the same region.